Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The power of incentives

Driving in places like Karachi is much more chaotic than driving anywhere in the US (even Boston). Yet, despite the craziness on the road, people do not seem to die much. Moreover, when safety measures (such as seatbelts) are introduced, you do not see any decrease in mortality. Drivers choose to consume "safety" by driving faster, keeping the risk they expose themselves to the same but getting to their destination faster. Pedestrians come out poorly in this calculation, but whatever. The most important element in safe driving is to what degree the driver is paying attention.
Reversing decades of conventional wisdom on traffic engineering, Hamilton-Baillie argues that the key to improving both safety and vehicular capacity is to remove traffic lights and other controls, such as stop signs and the white and yellow lines dividing streets into lanes. Without any clear right-of-way, he says, motorists are forced to slow down to safer speeds, make eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers, and decide among themselves when it is safe to proceed.
If you were actually serious about dramatically reducing deaths from car accidents, you would ban seatbelts from the driver's seat and affix a large metal spike to the steering column, pointing towards the heart. With that installed, I don't even think we'd need speed limits.


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